Blue Dragon Restaurant on Hawaii Island
The Living Salad at Blue Dragon Restaurant is served in a mini wood planter. Green and purple baby lettuces spill from the top along with a few wispy fennel fronds. Gilded gold scissors with ornate scrollwork are placed alongside. On a separate plate, wedges of roasted beets grown at Blue Dragon Farm are fanned in a circle and topped with cubes of perfectly ripe mango, crunchy pea shoots and intensely flavored strawberries. I am instructed to cut the lettuce along the edge of the planter box, so as not to get potting soil on my greens, roll the leaves around the vegetables and dip the lot into a jaboticaba honey vinaigrette, which is piped in circles around the plate. The salad is a blast to eat and the strawberries will forever haunt my memory.
I’m in my happy place, eating with my hands and knowing this salad is largely composed of ingredients grown no more than 18 miles away. Plus, there’s a trifecta of options to soothe my food loving soul. Besides dinner, Blue Dragon sells a line of fiery spice blends and honey that are used throughout the menu, and a food truck in the parking lot serves lunch. In addition, the staff at Blue Dragon strive to educate diners about eating what’s local and in season.
Bennett and Delphina Dorrance own the restaurant and farm (see last week’s blog post “Touring Sustainable Farms on Hawaii Island”) as well as Bond Estate in North Kohala. What was once the world’s largest organic macadamia nut orchard is now a nature preserve with beehives placed throughout the property. Jaboticaba, a grape-like fruit, was harvested from the farm and blended into the honey.
Spice blends are made exclusively for Blue Dragon by Big Island Peppers, who also grow the peppers. Dragon Dust, a blazing blend of Hawaiian chili peppers, scorpion peppers, Maui onions, cane sugar and Hawaiian sea salt, can be sprinkled on anything from eggs and popcorn to pizza and salads. Sweet and spicy Li Hing Moo (pronounced mo-oh, moo is the Hawaiian name for dragon) is made from Hawaiian chili peppers, plum and licorice extract, sugar and salt. H2O, a chili pepper water with ginger, honey and soy, is mild and the Ocean Fire Organic Hawaiian Cinnamon is the most extraordinary cinnamon I’ve ever tasted.
Located along the Kohala Coast, Blue Dragon is near the Kawaihae Harbor. The Dragon Wagon, parked in the restaurant’s lot, serves affordable lunch. Bread is baked daily from a bakery in Waimea and sliders are made with Big Island products such as beef, lettuce, tomatoes and onion. Hotdogs are all beef and kosher. French fries are hand-cut and if you ask for Dragon Style, you get a liberal sprinkling of Dragon Dust.
Grammy award-winner John Kiawe plays ukulele during dinner while girls, dressed in orange and red dresses with yellow flowers in their hair, dance the hula. The restaurant does not have a roof and when the sun goes down, stars twinkle in a black sky. Purple light splashes across the trunks of palm trees and the bar is lined with tiny lights.
Cocktails include the Green Dragon, a zesty take on the mojito with Tanqueray Rangpur Lime gin, fresh lime, mint and Thai Basil. Mule Dragon features your choice of premium vodka with fresh ginger, lime juice and locally made lemongrass kombucha. Blue Dragon is the bartender’s daily choice, which is always made with high-quality spirits and local fruit.
Our dinner consists of a series of specials, which change weekly. The Living Salad is followed by an eye-catching seafood sampler that includes poached clams, mussels and lobster claws, along with raw oysters, all raised on Kona. There’s also poached shrimp from Kauai, a sprinkling of H2O chili pepper water, and aioli. The briny, small and succulent mollusks are fresh and tender. Lobster claws taste of the ocean and the shrimp is sweet and firm.
Champagne and Strawberry Gazpacho includes traditional savory flavors such as cucumber, garlic and tomato, but it’s brightened with a sweet-tartness from the strawberries and champagne. It’s perfectly chilled and very refreshing on a hot Kohala day.
A pool of red wine demi glace sneaks into the crevasses of a garlicky risotto cake studded with Hamakua mushrooms and topped with a Big Island beef filet, pickled red onions and candied Hawaiian chili pepper.
Our dessert is springy malasadas coated with Li Hing Moo and filled with sweet potato puree. Toasted coconut ice cream tempers the heat and a graham crumble adds crunch. Tangy Maui pineapple foster and passionfruit gel enhance the flavors.
With a menu that’s driven by local products, executive chef Noah Hester works with more than 40 farms. And it’s not easy. Besides the intricacies of working with so many vendors, farmers sometimes forget to deliver, and produce runs out. When that happens, a menu item may not be available and that’s when the staff’s education program kicks in.
“Many customers don’t understand and they get upset when they can’t order something on the menu,” explains Noah. “But my job as a chef is to provide you with the best quality product I’ve got.”
Another opportunity to educate diners about eating what’s local and in season presents itself when Noah orders oranges from Kau for the restaurant’s cocktails. The problem is that the skin isn’t attractive due to a harmless “rust” that grows when pesticides aren’t used. Many customers are accustomed to blemish-free oranges. When a cocktail is sent out with a Kau orange garnish, some send it back because they think it’s rotten.
“It’s embarrassing when that happens because the customer doesn’t know,” says Noah. “Produce that looks pretty is often genetically modified and chemical ridden. I keep ugly oranges on the menu because I want people try them, learn something and become more knowledgeable about what they are putting into their bodies.”
When Noah was 3 years old, his father was a sailor and brought his family to Maui. Afterwards, Noah’s parents separated. He moved to Big Island with his mother, who fell in love with Alan Wong.
“He lived with us for 7 years,” says Noah. “There were cooking magazines all over the house, cooking shows on TV and he’d take me to events all the time. And my mom was a great cook.”
With a garden in the backyard of Noah’s childhood home and at his Montessori school, plus parents who ate healthy, cooking with fresh ingredients comes naturally to chef Noah.
“I just makes sense to me,” he says. “Why would I order limes from Mexico when I can order from a guy who lives 10 minutes away? He brings me epic Tahitian limes in 5-gallon buckets for half the price, with three times the favor and juice. If I can get produce that was picked today, and I can put it on my menu tonight, why wouldn’t I do that?”
Blue Dragon Restaurant
61-3616 Kawaihae Rd., Hawaii Island
This is post seven of seven of our Big Island trip. For more information, read “Big Island Bounty Tour.”
No one pays us to be featured on our blog, book, app or tours. It’s just our professional opinion! All images copyright Daniel Lane/Pono Photo. For more information, visit www.PonoPhoto.com.